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White Muslim 

Part two

Thursday, Dec 2 2004
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To read the first part of White Muslim click here.

THE SYRIAN ISLAM-SPREADER

The floor of the men’s room in the 96th Street mosque was awash in water. To the left of the entrance stood a huge basket of mismatched flip-flops and sandals, to be put on before going inside. Along one wall men sat on marble blocks in front of taps for people to perform their ablutions — washing feet, arms up to the elbow, rinsing nose and eyes — in preparation for prayer. There were no urinals, just a row of cubicles complete with a tap on one side (for more ablutions) and a plastic bucket on the other. Talking in the men’s room is strongly discouraged. Achieving cleanliness before God is a serious business.

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It was Friday prayers, the Islamic Sabbath. One Muslim among many, Vincent found a place on the vast carpeted floor of the main prayer room, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd. Topped by a dome, the mosque feels light and airy and comfortable, like the world’s biggest yoga studio. There is an upstairs balcony for the "sisters," a mihrab — a kind of understated altar — and a minbar, or pulpit, an upright latticed box at the top of five carpeted steps from which the imam delivers the khutba, or sermon. There are no pews, no chairs, no furniture of any kind at all — just an immense plush carpet, a calming green with geometric splashes of color, large enough to accommodate several tennis courts. With its informality and stretches of empty space, the mosque can make a church or a cathedral look pointlessly elaborate and ornate, and it feels curiously modern and user-friendly. Except during specific prayer times, you don’t have to be silent in a mosque, and if a cell phone goes off, nobody makes a fuss. On the contrary, two people can sit and talk while, nearby, someone else prays.

By 1:30 or so, the mosque, both upstairs and down, was packed to overflowing, which meant there were at least 1,300 people there with more lining up outside. (Carpets had been laid out on the grounds to accommodate those who couldn’t get in, and a mountain of castoff shoes was piled up outside the front door.) A slender young woman, veiled in unusually filmy black, rushed in through a side entrance, slipping off a pair of silver-mesh slippers before continuing barefoot on her way up to the balcony. The shoes were inlaid with a beaded flower pattern, and the label on the insole said "SWEET." Lying on the marble floor, inches from the carpet, they looked deliciously sinful.

Sheik Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian preacher with green eyes, milk-white skin and a clever face framed by a bushy ginger beard (people at the mosque joked that he and Vincent were brothers) ascended the stairs to the pulpit to deliver the sermon. Vincent had heard al-Yaqoubi before and approved. "He’s pretty blunt," he told me, suggesting that the Syrian, unlike some preachers, wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Al-Yaqoubi wore a white hat that looked like a tassel-less fez, and a long, pale, hooded Moroccan robe. Holding a pair of black worry beads in one hand, clutching the stair railing with the other, he made a strikingly archaic and authoritative figure. For a while he spoke in Arabic, then switched to English.

Al-Yaqoubi, who spends every Ramadan at the New York mosque but is also a regular visitor to California (he is staying in Orange County this week and will be at the Zaytuna Institute in the Bay Area later in the month) is what might be termed an itinerant Islam-spreader. Based in Damascus, he is the son of a celebrated scholar and delivered his first khutba at the age of 14. He was the imam in a mosque in Gothenburg, Sweden, for several years (in 1999, he was made mufti of Sweden), and has worked and preached in England, Canada and Scotland. He has been to the United States 25 times, and, given the cost of the average flight between New York and Damascus, not to mention Stockholm and Edinburgh and Strasbourg and L.A., someone must be funding him handsomely.

Multilingual and media savvy (he quoted Lancet’s estimate of 100,000 war-related deaths in Iraq to me hours after it first surfaced on the Internet), al-Yaqoubi is optimistic about Islam’s prospects in the West. He estimates that he gives shahada to approximately 100 Americans (of whom 20 will be white, the rest African-American, Hispanic and Asian) every Ramadan in New York, and has had quite a lot of success with whites in the San Francisco Bay area. The diversity of American society makes it easier for Islam to take hold, he believes, because there is no dominant culture to repel it. In England he has had less success, but in Scandinavia "we have lots of the native people coming, but slowly."

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